Fourteen years is a long time to wait, but that’s how long it took for Bert Blyleven to get into the Hall of Fame. He is a deserving selection, to be sure, but one that leaves you wondering about the others, those who straddled the line that runs between mere great and Hall of Fame great.
I've been a Hall of Fame voter since 1971, and it got me thinking about some of the players over the years who I had voted for but, for whatever reason, could not convince 75 percent of my BBWAA brothers and sisters that he belonged in the Hall of Fame. What a team they would make up, I thought, and why were so many of them first basemen, each in my mind qualified to go into the Hall of Fame? And that did not count Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire, each of whom is on my restricted list.
Let’s have some fun, put forth this team and what they have done to at the very least consider Hall of Fame inclusion, and let’s hear your thoughts, for obviously there is room for much discussion:
Catcher: Ted Simmons, owner of the Hall of Fame nickname “Simba” for his flowing mane, a player who belongs in the Hall if for no other reason than you could sit and hold an intelligent discussion with him about some abstract matter for hours on end without becoming bored. More importantly, he could hit. As a switch-hitter, he had a career batting average of .285 with 248 home runs and 1,389 RBI. When you look at the 10 most similar hitters to Simmons at Baseball-Reference.com, you come across three Hall of Fame catchers—Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, and Yogi Berra.
First base: Here we go, a position where I’m not sure what the voters have been thinking, for even if you take Palmeiro and McGwire out of the equation you are left with Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez, and Will Clark. To give you an idea of the quality there, I would put Clark third in that group, and he batted .303 with 284 home runs and 1,205 RBI, drove in 100 or more four times, and made six All-Star teams. He, too, had a Hall of Fame nickname, “The Thrill.”
But it comes down to—and always did when they were playing—Keith and “Donnie Baseball,” and everyone who watched them had their favorite. Hernandez had his own devil to fight in drugs, while Mattingly’s biggest sin was a bad back that cut his career short. In the end, you must choose Mattingly, who hit .307 with 222 home runs and 1,099 RBI, because in his prime he was just so special with a 230-hit season with 53 doubles, nine Gold Gloves, and an MVP. If you took Hernandez, there would be no argument from me, though.
Second base: Lou Whitaker, but this will change in a year or two when Craig Biggio becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame. “Sweet Lou” was just that, sweet. He could hit, run, play second base, and was part of a great double-play combination with Alan Trammell. His .276 career average with 244 home runs and 1,084 RBI compare well with Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg, Joe Morgan, and Roberto Alomar.
At his best, Whitaker received 27 percent of the vote, which is a clear rejection, and having covered Morgan at his prime I cannot argue with that. However, Sparky Anderson, who managed both, once told me Whitaker was almost as good as Morgan. That was good enough for me.
Shortstop: Only one, Davey Concepcion. And, yes, he will always be Davey here.
I saw him come to the Reds in 1970 as a skinny kid who could barely speak English, be taken under his wing by Anderson and Tony Perez, then blossom into one of the greatest shortstops of all-time. OK, he wasn’t Honus Wagner and the game changed for shortstops when Cal Ripken Jr. came along, but Concepcion was the one Ozzie Smith edged to start winning Gold Gloves. There wasn’t anything Concepcion couldn’t do in the field, and he also became a decent hitter. I think that everyone who failed to vote for him was dead wrong.
Santo hit .277 with 342 home runs, albeit with hitter-friendly Wrigley Field as his home. But anyone who ever tried to hit one out there when the wind was blowing in will tell you it was as tough as hitting one out of the Astrodome. Nine All-Star teams and five Gold Gloves fill out a Hall of Fame resume.
Left field: You can make a heck of a list here, beginning with Minnie Minoso, who is a Hall of Famer for no other reason than playing at age 54, but that .298 batting average doesn’t change matters.
But guess what? I’m going to stun you here and go with Albert Belle, who just may have been the most dangerous hitter of his generation, driving in 100 or more runs in nine straight years and averaging 40 homers and 130 runs batted in over a 12-year career. Nice guy? Not at all. But what was it Leo Durocher said?
Center field: Next year, Bernie Williams will give the writers something to think about when he becomes eligible, but right now he is not in the discussion, leaving us with Devon White and Vada Pinson.
White was one of those players who was very good, but not great. That leaves us with Pinson, who once punched Earl Lawson of the Cincinnati Post, something that may have kept him out of the Hall of Fame but helped Lawson get in. Pinson wound up with 2,757 hits, a .286 batting average, 256 homers, 1,170 RBI, and 305 steals—numbers that would even play in today’s game.
I’ll take Pinson.
Right field: I want to pick Dave Parker, who could have been as good as he thought he was, but it is staggering to believe that all Larry Walker could gather was 20 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility this year. Walker's all-time numbers, even if much of them were compiled in Denver, were outstanding. He had a .313 batting average, 383 home runs, 1,311 RBI, an MVP, six Gold Gloves, five All-Star teams and—get this—consecutive years of hitting .366, .363, and .379. Obviously, he could not keep that pace, “slumping” the next year to .309 before coming back with a .350 season.
We’ll wait for another day to do the pitchers.